Vice chiefs bemoan readiness in bid to save budgets

A 16-star panel told the HASC on Tuesday the services are having problems now and they'd only be made worse by big reductions in DoD's budget.

The vice chiefs of the military services told House lawmakers on Tuesday that 10 years of war and a consistently high operational tempo have hurt their overall readiness, in a choreographed hearing that congressional defense advocates hoped would generate new ammunition for their bid to stop major defense budget cuts. One by one, the number two officers said they were meeting all the requests they could for forces in Central Command, but they were “accepting risk” in the state of their equipment, their stateside units, and their ability to answer tasking elsewhere in the world.

The ringmaster was Virginia Rep. Randy Forbes, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness subcommittee. If each service’s situation is so bad now, he asked the vice chiefs, what would happen if it had to absorb part of $400 billion, or even $800 billion, in overall spending cuts? One by one, the vice chiefs acknowledged that they’d be hard-pressed to swallow their share of $400 billion, and if it were double that, they said they’d need a major, strategic evaluation because they’d need to determine what capabilities to give up.

The complaints about today’s force were familiar to service-watchers: Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove warned that the Air Force is operating with the oldest fleet in its history, and said the service is at the “ragged edge” of what it can provide outside CentCom. Assistant Marine Commandant Gen. Joe Dunford said that stateside Marine units and their families were bearing the burden for deployment-taxed Marines in Afghanistan, and warned that the Corps couldn’t handle another major war somewhere in the world if asked. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli said the service still hasn’t gotten to its goals for dwell time for the troops: 24 months at home for every 12 an active-component soldier spends deployed; and five years at home for every year a reserve component soldier is deployed. Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, who is in line to take over for Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead later this year, skimmed the Navy readiness problems that Forbes’ committee heard about July 12.

But unlike in that Navy hearing, Forbes and his lawmakers didn’t press the officials for details about their problems — the goal was to get them on the record describing the basics of their current woes, to make clear that things would get even worse if President Obama and congressional leaders agree to a deficit-reduction deal that involves deep defense budget cuts. What about the Navy’s problems with Link 16 data connections between ships and aircraft? What about the Army’s rates of suicide and sexual assault? What about the state of the Marine Corps’ aging Amphibious Assault Vehicles? What about the Air Force’s grounded fleet of F-22 Raptors? It wasn’t that kind of hearing — the vice chiefs went along, but they did not want to tip their cards any more than necessary.

In fact, the commanders couldn’t resist bragging a little on their respective services. Guam Rep. Madeleine Bordallo asked each of them how long it would take and how much it would cost to get their levels of readiness to where they’d been before the Sept. 11 attacks. But even though Greenert and Breedlove acknowledged their services were smaller than they had been, each of the vice chiefs said they’ve got the most experienced, best trained, most war-seasoned forces they’ve ever seen. Chiarelli said outright that he did not want to go back: the Army before Sept. 11 was less ready than it is today and it had come through a very painful time of 15-month deployments, which he hoped it never repeats. Today’s force, overall, is the best it’s ever been, he said.

Three of the witnesses did answer the question, however: Chiarelli said the Army expects it will need between $20 billion and $25 billion to reset after the end of hostilities, and that it won’t be able to begin spending that until about two years afterwards, to allow time to get all its vehicles and equipment back to the U.S. Dunford said the Marines would need about $12 billion. Greenert said the Navy would be happy with full funding for its aircraft and surface ship maintenance shortfalls — no more than about $800 million.

Dunford, Breedlove and Chiarelli also said that whatever happens with potential budget cuts, they were committed to “balance” and to avoiding a “hollow force.” Chiarelli acknowledged the Army’s instinctive reaction would be to protect its force structure, as opposed to its weapons programs, but he said its leaders must keep everything in balance, so it doesn’t end up, for example, with a surplus of infantry and no tanks. And Dunford told lawmakers that he and the other vice chiefs all were products of the 1970s-era military, when there really was a “hollow force,” — including “holes” in airplanes where their engines should be, Breedlove said — so that experience would motivate them to make sure budget cuts are done right.

The biggest question about Tuesday’s hearing was whether it will have any bearing on the actual prospects for defense budget cuts. Forbes and other lawmakers have co-opted DoD’s strategy strategy, which dictates that you can’t take any action unless you’ve prepared a document that says so. That’s what Secretary Gates hoped to get with the Mother of All Reviews, now underway in the Pentagon, but Washington has another deadline looming much closer at hand: On Aug. 2, the United States will default on its debts, unless it again raises the cap on the amount it allows itself to borrow. That leaves no time for the major strategy review everyone says they want, and that’s why, to Forbes’ annoyance, lawmakers and President Obama are talking about hundreds of billions in cuts without a drawn-out, thoughtful discussion about the long-term strategic priorities of the United States.

So if there’s a grand deal settling the fiscal future of the United States, it’s going to be struck in the next week. Forbes and HASC chairman Rep. Buck McKeon want their views to be heard, and they’ve been making a lot of noise to that end. Only time will tell whether it’s reaching the right ears.